Gangs, violence, sexual abuse, poverty. These are words that are commonly used in Tonacatepeque, an area located about 25 miles outside San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. At the heart of Tonacatepeque lies Centro Escolar Distrito Italia, a school that is a haven of sorts for the community’s children.
“The school becomes the safest place for kids and their families,” says Edwin Mauricio Perez, the school’s director. “Outside there are assaults, abuses, rapes, drugs, and gangs. That’s the everyday thing for them. We need to offer them something other than mathematics or language, so we are developing a model that is different from the traditional school. We want to give them a holistic type of education.”
The school offers workshops in music, theater acting, sculpture, drawing, gardening, and breadmaking, among others. Through music and movement of their bodies and hands, children release their stress, develop their creativity and, at the same time, expand their professional prospects.
Centro Escolar Distrito Italia is the school that the International Brain Education Association (IBREA) has chosen to carry out its first brain-education (BE) pilot project in Latin America. What brings both institutions together is a passion for a type of education that moves beyond knowledge and technology to focus on character and the development of the human being.
Combining Eastern medicine with neuroscientific developments in the West, BE aims at developing the full potential of an individual’s brain for the betterment of themselves and their community. The premise is that human potential is optimized when the physical, emotional, social, and cognitive aspects of the self are developed in an integrated way.
“Our brain is with us all the time, but how aware are you of your brain?” is the first question the BE team poses to students and teachers at Centro Escolar Distrito Italia. “What does it look like? How does it feel?” BE is based on the scientific knowledge that the brain is connected to — and therefore responsible for — every aspect of human life: physical health, emotional management, social interactions, cognitive health, and mental well-being are all based on brain activity. Therefore, we can improve the quality of our lives and those around us if we learn to make better use of our brain. BE includes physical exercises that increase flexibility and coordination, mental exercises enhancing focus and attention, and other activities and games that develop life motivation, emotional stability, creativity, and imagination.
In Tonacatepeque, the main focus is on helping students and teachers overcome trauma from violence, cope with stress, and advance their capacity to learn, grow, and be creative in their environment. The project’s focus group is 40 children and 24 teachers. The pilot phase will run for three months, and it includes research that, through pre- and post-surveys, will measure BE’s impact in the individuals’ physical, emotional, and cognitive condition, with the ultimate aim of replicating the model in other schools across the country.
“Your program has fallen from heaven, as our stress level is very high, and the case is the same with our students,” says Perez. “I need your help, and I will apply this program with the objective that my fellow teachers and students obtain the necessary tools to improve their lives.”
“Cerebro Poder!” (“Brain Power!”) scream the children after clapping their hands 10 times. That’s the cheer used at the beginning of every BE class, for the children to focus their bodies and minds and send positive messages to their brains. The classes are both theoretical and practical. The students learn the potential of their bodies and their brains, and they experience it directly — because when the body experiences change, the brain remembers. Confidence increases, and our human development can be taken to the next step.
After the first month of the pilot the results in Tonacatepeque were noticeable. Teachers say they have released a lot of stress, improved their healthm emotional well-being and cognitive capacity. Physical benefits include weight loss, better blood circulation and resolved joint, kidney and bladder problems.
“My high blood pressure has come down, and I have stopped taking medicine,” says Glynnys, a BE teacher. Among the emotional and cognitive effects, the teachers point to increased awareness and focus, more motivation, more patience, more self-esteem, and feeling more relaxed and less emotional with everyday problems. They report experiencing improved posture and breathing, less fear and more stamina, and that they are feeling more dynamic. They say they are happier and more connected with their bodies. “My mind is more fresh and agile,” says Rosibel, a mathematics teacher.
And the students? How have their lives improved? “Brain education has allowed [the students], in only a few weeks, to improve [their] quality of life and [their] learning abilities,” says the school’s director. “The students have increased their self-esteem and have better interpersonal relations.”
The BE team has students set monthly goals and check them every day. As a way to express and evaluate themselves, the children are asked to keep daily journals. One child writes: “Today I learned that I cannot give up based on insignificant things. We have to work together to achieve our goals and never give up. We have to learn to relax our body and mind and think positively.”
In a community such as this one, where circumstances are very unstable and drastic, sometimes life-and-death changes happen every day. The BE team has seen that setting personal goals that are challenging, and which at the same time widely benefit others, can bring about lasting changes for the better. Planning and checking become key components of the program.
BE instructors ask children and students: If you truly believe that every choice you make and every action you take has an impact on others and the world, what will you choose? One of the scariest things for the brain, IBREA warns, is thinking that what one wants is impossible. This causes a person to give up and find something easier to do, or to make plans again and again without following through. These patterns lead to the brain’s atrophy.
By increasing learners’ motivation, BE helps them break the cycle of just planning over and over again, to follow through in action and then to check and plan again until they achieve their objectives. One simple way of doing this is good old push-ups. The BE instructors ask the students to set their monthly goals for push-ups. Many start off by doing three or five, and, in just a few weeks, some go up to 65.
In terms of sustainability, the program is designed to train this group of 24 teachers as BE instructors. They will be in charge of multiplying the effects of BE in the school and community after this pilot phase. They have already started teaching the children in their own classes.
The Ministry of Education of El Salvador considers Centro Escolar Distrito Italia a role model at the national level. It is one of 22 so-called Escuelas de tiempo pleno (“full-time schools”), which focus on a holistic type of education. That is the reason why, following a visit of the minister of education to the school where he participated in one of the BE classes, the government is considering the replication of the program in the rest of 21 schools that are a part of this network.
If these children learn to wake up their brains and unleash their creative and productive power with a view to improve the world around them, they will be able to deeply change and transform their communities, and, in turn, their country’s future.
In fact, this is the bigger vision of IBREA and brain education, created by Ilchi Lee: to help educate future leaders for a better world. BE is offered as a methodology for international development and peace in alignment with the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs). The premise is that any developmental change in the world starts in the people, and it starts within our brains.